There is only one downriver whitewater race in the world I will ever compete in. The Animal Race on the Class V Upper Gauley River in West Virginia. Why? It is summed up succinctly on their group page on Facebook: “The Gauley River…. just the mention of it causes a whitewater paddler to go into a dream like trance- This event is [a] downriver race on this legendary section of river. Beginning near the base of Summersville Dam, the race ends nine miles downstream. Paddlers must negotiate the ‘Big Five’ on the Upper Gauley and the finish line is at a 12 foot drop called Sweet’s Falls. Over the years, this race has grown in notoriety and participation… SO- C’mon paddle the Gauley like you mean it!”
There are many classes to choose from, including the various kayak disciplines (Wildwater, Wavehopper/Speeder, Slalom, and Play Boat), Open Boat, River Boards, SUP, IK, and 6 Person Raft Teams. And with scores of DBP Admins from around the country and the world already gathered in town for Gauley Fest, this year’s event, held on Monday September 19th, would prove to be a race for the ages.
The competition began the week before up in Friendsville, MD where the various Dirt Bags were coming together before the festival to paddle and party at the Upper Yough releases. With partying comes wagering, especially if the two protagonists are Aaron Erdrich and Gabriel Crawford. AE is one of the top raft racers in the country, especially as a solo boater, and the winner of last year’s S1 class. He’s also a top rank pot-stirer. Gabe, founder of Biskitz Deep Rafting as well as a DBP Admin, is an experienced Gauley guide and TL and notorious shit talker in his own right. Mix these egos with moonshine and some Class V rafting and you’ll get some great side bet action! At this point these two were going to face off in the R1 category, but that would change as the week unfolded… But the stakes were set. One hundred push-ups for the loser. Stay tuned…
Then we reconvened in Summersville for the party of the year. Admins were gathering and the race hype was growing. We were wearing our “No One Gives A Shit You’re A DBP Admin” shirts, more paddling, more partying, just really living the OneLoveOneRiver Philosophy full steam ahead! Everyone was feeling the stoke now, and many of us were now making plans to race. Gabe was going to lead a boat of us Admins down, with Dale #danewho Guarniere, Mike Keller, Todd Schaefer, Gabe’s buddy Ryan of BDR, and I making up the six man crew. (Yeah, I had given up on my own shit talking plan to take on the infamous local hero Nori Kayak in the IK class, well, because I’m a you-know-what! #DIP) Tucker Wright and his girlfriend Ellen Osment would both be entering as kayakers. Daniel Young would be kayaking as well as DJing the afterparty (he was also teaming up with his brother Henry Potter to DJ at Gauley Fest!). Toni Lynn would be pushing rubber with a group of friends on an all-Ladies team. Alex Wilson would be teaming up with Bubby Miller and Rage Cage to run another raft. Sonia Ferrandiz, Ollie El-Gamel, and Kelly Gladen planned on running safety, the girls in rafts and Ollie in his hardboat. And AE would be squaring off against Linc Stallings in a battle of shredders! It was truly a family affair.
This didn’t stop Aaron and Gabe’s shit talking! I’ll let Gabe explain the scenario on Friday night… Wait, I guess it WAS Saturday morning. “So, first off I must say that the Dab King’s memory can get quite cloudy at times… Gauley Fest evenings most definitely fall into that category. I’m pretty sure that Aaron Erdrich and myself along with a few other No One Gives A Shit’s were posted up a level above the insanity of people getting jiggy with it to Daniel Young spinning beats for Gauley Nation. It was really just an ambulance converted into D.YOUNG’S living quarters while out on the road.. Either way, it was most definitely the best spot to be at Gauley Fest. We reminisced of times throughout the last year. Aaron talk about Rage Cage and their trip out to Colorado to race. I’ve been a river guide now for 15 years, but I’d never been in a raft race before so I enjoyed listening to how exciting and invigorating it is to race down a river nonstop. Aaron has been paddling his Hyside rafts down all kinds of rivers all over the place and most of the time R1ing so needless to say he can push that rubber down just about any ditch with water pretty damn good and fast. It wasn’t long before the wagers began. Aaron said that he was gonna beat me down the Upper Gauley even though he knew that I was planning on racing in the R6 category. So knowing that I would have myself and 5 other DBP Admin’s in my raft, I’m all in. Shit started getting real, folks. I could not even see how Aaron thought he could beat 6 good paddlers in one raft up against him in his raft. This is a very healthy/friendly rivalry that Aaron and I have so money is off the table for betting here. The prize must be worthy of such high-quality individuals as ourselves. One hundred push-ups on call at anytime by the winne, to be dispensed throughout the year until next Gauley Fest. So this means the winner can call the beater any day at any time and ask for just one or up to 10 at once. This is a good bet, lots of very embarrassing situations can be created with push ups on call.”
Fast forward to the night before the race. The festival is over, so the Admins who remain are at the bar at Adventures on the Gorge drinking heavily and watching Peyton Love’s latest video of Noah’s Ark losing their SECOND boat of the weekend on the Upper! We are all there, along with Taz Riggs, who won’t be on board a boat but will be shooting photos at the finish line. (The ones that grace this article.) We are tossing back beers for poor Wilson, who’s twisted his knee and left for home. (That sucked.) We are also taking bets on AE vs Linc. On the one hand is the reigning winner in the class from last year who rarely loses ANY race he enters. All the Kosir crew lined up to put money on him: Dale, Keller, Todd, and I. Backing Linc are the lovely ladies who know he’s a world class paddler who has been sending the Gauley for many years. They are so convinced he’s going to win that it almost shakes our conviction… Almost. But not quite! Toni, Sonia, and MJ back their boy. Of course most of these dirtbags don’t even pony up because we’re all broke. I pocket the collection for tomorrow’s outcome. AE goes out to the van to sleep pretty early, but Linc and the rest of us fellas stay out till bar close. Pappy can still party!! We will see what tomorrow brings…
Race day started kinda foggy, both the weather and my moonshine addled brain. I headed over to Tudor’s for biscuits for everybody, and I was so hungover I forget the crumpled bills in my pocket were from last night’s bets – WALLACE! I got over to the dam with about an hour to spare. Everyone was there in various states of preparation. Dale was running around in khakis, wearing the DBP banner like a superhero’s cape. Daniel was so low that he locked the keys to his trailer, with his boating gear AND DJ set up inside. WALLACE!! No race, no afterparty. He left soon after. That sucked too.
I’m an Ambassador for Maravia Rafts, and I’d been given a 14 foot Spider to race, good ole “Limey.” She’s got great lines and a pointy profile, and Gabe and I had been running her all weekend. She’s fast, she punches holes with ease, and she’s built to race. (Spoiler: two of the top three men’s rafts end up being Maravias, which aren’t all that common in the east. Thanks again Renee for sending out “Limey” from the Cascade River Gear fleet! You’re awesome!) While I’d been getting Biscuit World, Gabe and Ryan had been prepping the raft and covering our team entrance fee. (Thanks fellas! Biscuits for Biskits – a fine trade!) Let’s race! But first, let’s eat and catch a buzz.
Race organizer Travis Cobb laid down the ground rules for how the race would be run about a half hour before the start. Along with the main prizes, participants could pitch in on the Grudge Match bins, where each category’s winner would take all that was put up. (DBP tossed in stickers for every bin, and one Admin added a bag of legal Michigan medicinal for the 6 man race winner.) After getting the lowdown, our team went back to Limey for last minute adjustments, especially to our jar of shine. After a couple rounds, we picked up the raft and headed with AE down to the put in. As we hit the water, helmets still unbuckled, vests loose, cooler full of beer, the countdown from 10 began… Talk about the nick of time! That’s dirtbaggin’! Gabe reminisces: “Team DBP/BDR was sitting in our sweet raft Cascade River Gear had sent us to take down the Gauley, a neon green Maravia Spider with a big “Tap This!” stamped on the bottom. Aaron was close by in an eddy.. I gave him a proper Goodluck finger, and then Boom the race began.”
That shot marked the start of one of the toughest things I’ve ever done, paddle non stop for eight miles through Class IV and V whitewater that up until that day always gave me pause and challenged me to my utmost. But not this day. We were so focused that nothing seemed to phase us. Gabe’s lines were so clean that we never thought twice about them. (The only double take was about a third of the way, when we passed a bag of herb floating on the river… I guarantee it’s the only time a raft of dirtbags ever didn’t stop to pick up a free quarter sack, but we definitely thought about it for half a second… It’s was just like Mario Cart, Dale said.) We didn’t even get everything fully buckled in until we hit Insignificant. The ladies teams passed us fairly quickly, and beat all the men’s teams asses by a long shot. We held our own and even led the men for about a quarter of the race, and were never far behind. We were definitely the only team that drank beer during the race! (Yep, Gabe cracked one just before Pillow Rock! What a Dirtbag!) Sure, we rotated breaks in the race, but everyone on board gave everything they had and then some. I have never paddled so hard in all my life! It was an amazing feeling, indeed.
I’ll turn it over to Gabe again: “It was like a dream. We paddled nonstop to Postage Due where the finish line was. We nailed every single rapid with beauty. BEST Pillow Rock run I’ve ever had, and I’ve been a Gauley guide since ‘07. We finished in 3rd place with 1:07:51. First place in our category finished with 1:07:00. I could see them dropping Sweets Falls as I was setting our approach to Sweets. There is still a bitterness in my soul for those last few seconds of the race knowing I didn’t win the Animal Race. But I did know that we placed by then and we were all riding the rockstar life the rest of the day awaiting the awards ceremony. With all that excitement on Postage Due we forgot about the other victory we were about to live. Watching Aaron get up on Postage, after yours truly.” Yes, Gabe did beat AE. And AE beat Linc. By a landslide. Linc Wallaced at Pillow, grabbing his tube on the RMR shredder (after blasting Aaron for being a tube grabber all night!) and that spelled the end of his chances to for the upset. Aaron’s lines were smooth as always and he won handily.
We didn’t realize it in the heat of the moment, but we lost to Sonia! Hell, we were so jazzed we didn’t even know at the time that she hadn’t been playing safety! I asked her to tell us all about winning the Animal Race: “I went to the upper Gauley put-in on the morning of the Animal Race with the intention of joining a friend’s raft to set safety for the racers. I rigged my throw rope and other personal gear into his raft, but as usual, got to talking with the many other fine people that you run into at the put-in on any given morning. Ultimately, I was approached by a couple guys who said that they had five people for the race and needed a sixth. I was taken aback, but said that I’d be willing to race with them. However, they were unsure if we’d still be allowed to race in the men’s category with a girl in the boat. We cleared it with the race officials, and so I grabbed my gear and switched rafts.” Cheaters!! Hahah, just kidding.
Sonia: “Their friends got back from running shuttle and we started carrying the boat to the put-in. I had rowed crew in high school, so I suggested we pull “Power 10” strokes periodically throughout the race to get our strokes together and keep morale up. This was immediately nixed by the leader of the group – “you’ll paddle when I say you paddle.” I shrugged to myself, got in the raft, the horn blew, and we were quickly moving.”
“It was a tough race, definitely an endurance race, not a sprint. Your muscles are burning after 5 minutes, but you still have 30-40 minutes to go. The guys I was racing with were competitive and quickly annoyed at the two women’s R6 crews that quickly gained a lead on us. Good for them, I thought, and kept paddling. A couple times throughout the race, the leader again berated me for not paddling strong enough and not switching sides quickly enough? Really? I thought. These guys recruited me. My stuff was rigged in a safety raft! I also suggested running the main line at Sweet’s (quicker, cleaner), but again, the leader insisted we run the Meltdown (with a decent chance of flipping).”
“It was a close race and we ended up passing the other two men’s R6 crews to place first in our category, and we stayed upright in the Meltdown. However, we were only about 15 seconds ahead of the second raft, and easily could have lost first place if we had flipped. We were also beaten by the two women’s R6 crews. As I stood on Postage Due, one of the ladies mentioned that they liked to pull Power10’s, and that that was one of the keys to their success.” We definitely noticed as the ladies beat OUR asses. We tried it too, but weren’t as cool.
“I had an incredible day racing in a category that I wouldn’t have otherwise gotten to experience if it weren’t for random chance. I have a winner’s belt buckle that I proudly display at my house. We may have won our category, but I wouldn’t say that my crew necessarily won at sportsmanship.” WALLACE. Well said, Sonia. You’re a winner in more ways than one. Hats off!
Ollie DID run safety for the race, and I asked him to talk about the experience. The native New Zealander was down with us in West By God for his first ever Gauley weekend after spending the summer working on the Ottawa River in Canada. “On the morning of the race I volunteered my services as a safety boater. This would be my first lap down the Gauley in a creek boat and my third time down the river overall. Above Insignificant I realized the race was starting and I had to boost ahead of the group I was with to reach Tumblehome on time; this is when my personal race began. So with a basic knowledge of the river and order of the rapids I set off.” That’s right, Ollie was now soloing the Upper Gauley!
“The first boaters I encountered were above Pillow rock. When I asked one: “This is Pillow right?” I got a sarcastic “good joke…” before they peeled off downstream. Guessing that the sarcasm was due to the fact that this was obviously Pillow to everyone who knew the river, I set off down stream once more. Once again my Tuna and I were flying solo. With clean lines and minimal beatering I found myself in the flat water stretch where I found two kayakers taking a moment to chill on a rock island. Paddling past I asked for some beta “ It’s not the kind of run to paddle solo if you don’t know it.”
“Awesome, well I have to keep going anyway.” And finally I found myself safely in the river right eddy below Tumblehome ready for anything.” That’s our brother!
Ollie: “Suddenly, a swimmer! Now I know it’s never good to be stoked for somebody to swim but I can’t deny the excitement I felt when it was time for me to swing into action. Luckily the slightly moist kayaker avoided swimming the Mail Slot and dropped into Tumblehome. She went deep to hang out with the fishies. After I pulled her and her boat to shore, I realized she wasn’t a racer! I resumed my position, ready for whatever could happen next (the possibilities in whitewater are endless). Fortunately all the racers were close behind and for the most part had clean lines so I slipped into my other role, captain of stokage, and I whooped, hollered and yelled my support to everyone out there crushing it. After a while I noticed everyone paddling past me downstream weren’t wearing race bibs and when I asked one about it they told me all the racers had already passed me. With this in mind I headed downstream with some super friendly southeastern boaters, mentally preparing myself to win the party that night.” For the record I’ve taken that swim at Tumblehome. You DO visit the fishies.
Back to Ollie: “I’d like to take a moment to thank the organizers of the race for the opportunity to volunteer and be a part of such an awesome race down a quality section of whitewater, for the clean shirt (God knows I needed one), and for the burrito at the awards ceremony that helped keep a dirtbag going another day!” Yeah, EVERYBODY in the DBP crew was in desperate need of those shirts!!
Ollie finally made it to Postage Due, where he met up with Toni, Sonia, Linc, Tucker, Ellen, AE, and the rest of us! Postage Due is a massive rock in the middle of the river, big enough for scores of paddlers to stand on, with rafts and kayaks pulled up on top for seating, and many more tethered off the backside. We drank that case of beer with abandon, filling the Coliseum with laughing, watching the waves of boaters come down Sweet’s, loving and sharing in the joy of The Race.
While up on Postage Due, Dale decided to engage in one of our favorite forms of Wallacing, jumping off the rock into passing rafts headed into the Box Canyon (sometimes referred to as the Poop Chute) to induce a flip. This tiny side canyon is known for a relatively safe place to pin and overturn a raft, and although all the race boats had stayed in the main channel to get the fastest time, there were hundreds of private boaters and commercial customers now making their way into the Coliseum. Off jumps Dale, still geared in dress pants, a Green Bay Packers jersey, and the DBP Banner, (we had lost this same banner at last year’s Gauley Fest, and had it returned by Natalie Price, the American Whitewater festival director, only four days earlier.) trying to upset a passing shredder. WHOOP!!- off the back of the raft he goes, captured by Kelly Gladen’s GoPro from her perch on the ACE shoreline, where she had gone after playing safety at Pillow. Dale ended up swimming for about five minutes, completely exhausted after racing for an hour. He twisted his ankle, lost a shoe, AND the banner! It wasn’t coming back this time… WALLACE!!
Eventually we finished the run and headed over to the Burrito Bar for the afterparty and awards ceremony. Again Travis Cobb had thought of everything, including getting married a few days before and putting all of the leftover wine and liquor onto the prize table. The band was good and the free beer was better! All the category winners got belt buckles, including Sonia and AE. Nori got one for winning the IK class. There were a few left over, so Gabe and Linc got ones too. (Gabe said we could all wear it throughout the year… We will see! Hahahahah WALLACE.) Ellen had a great race and placed second in her class, and celebrated the victory with free beer and Tucker. There wasn’t as much gear to win this year, but everyone on our raft got a bottle of wine. Linc really won out, he got a $50 bottle of Patron! The food was great, but after enjoying some of that Michigan medicinal with the R6 winners, DBP hit the road back to our camp at the base of Summersville Dam.
We had run our course. Everyone was tired but we tried to celebrate, running on the fumes of a big race and what adrenaline is left after such an amazing time. We all knew that after days of paddling and partying, we were all about to head our separate ways once more. Gabe pulled out his guitar and played with Cory Lancto of River Funk while Ollie freestyled about running the river and not giving a fuck. We pulled out “Limey” to find that Dale’s plastic Wallace helmet had been smashed flat by the weight. Taz and I walked to the river’s edge in an effort to keep the night going on forever. (If you’ve been there, it is no short walk.) No one wanted to admit that we were at an end, and we fought it like only Dirtbags can, with smiles on our lips and the OneLoveOneRiver Philosophy beating in our chests.
OFFICIAL RACE MOVIE-
SPECIAL THANKS to James Shrewsbury for the race start photo, and Taz Riggs for the photos at Sweet’s Falls. And yes, that blue spot in the water is that Noah’s Ark raft, aka the Blue Condom on Dildo Rock. WALLACE!!